Rohingyas in Canada: portraits of life and struggle

Burma
Migration
Canada
nur1.jpg

Nur Hashim: 'In 2006, my 3-year-old daughter Sadeka drowned in the Naya Para Teknaf refugee camp. In the camp we had to conserve water in large buckets. That day she went to the bathroom, tried to get water from the bottom of the bucket, and fell in.' © Colin Boyd Shafer

For too many years, the international community has been silent on the fate of the Rohingya people, and in spite of recent international attention to their plight, the Burmese authorities have showed no sign of changing their ways.

Aside from their formal exclusion by Burma’s military government, there are myriad less evident ways the Rohingya, an ethnic, linguistic and religious minority, have been marginalized, specifically in relation to the colour of their skin, their religion (Islam), and their identity.

Many other ethnic minorities have suffered at the hands of Burma’s oppressive military regime, but the very existence of the Rohingya people is threatened.

Recently, thousands have fled by boat, hoping to land safely in neighbouring countries, only to find themselves facing death as they are pushed back out to sea.

In 2006, five Rohingya families were selected by the Canadian government for resettlement. This made Canada the first country to formally resettle any members of the Rohingya community, and many other ‘developed’ countries have followed suit.

Today, there are over 300 Rohingyas living in Canada; more than a third of them live in the Kitchener-Waterloo area of Ontario.

The Rohingya community in Canada remembers a time, more than half a century ago, when life in Burma was relatively peaceful and free. They would visit their Buddhist neighbours’ homes during holidays, and the Buddhists would visit their homes during Muslim holidays.

Times are very different now. Before 2012, they say their people could survive in Burma, but since then life has become much more difficult. They explain how if you go to Arakan State (the former name of Rakhine State, in Burma) today, the only Rohingyas you will find are those who couldn’t escape – the really old and the really young.

Nur Hashim, who heads the Canadian Burmese Rohingya Organization, explains how there are rumours that after Ramadan ends on 17 July, Bangladesh will move those in its 2 official refugee camps to Noakhali Hatiya Para Island.

He is worried because every rainy season the area floods. It is also prone to cyclones and only accessible by boat. If this move happens, ‘lots of people will die’.

The Canadian Rohingyas are a small community full of hopes and dreams. They have not forgotten where they come from and what their people are still going through overseas. They continue to wait until the day that their people will be recognized as citizens of Burma, free from persecution.

Colin Boyd Shafer is a documentary photographer based in Toronto, Canada. Shafer’s projects include Cosmopolis Toronto and the InterLove project, telling interfaith love stories through portraiture.

Nur Hashim

Colin Boyd Shafer

‘I continue to work for my community here and in Burma. I try to be an ambassador and advocate for our cause. It is important that Canadian society knows what is going on.

In 2006, my 3-year-old daughter Sadeka drowned in the Naya Para Teknaf refugee camp. In the camp we had to conserve water in large buckets. That day she went to the bathroom, tried to get water from the bottom of the bucket, and fell in.

We will always be thankful to Canada. We have no words to give thanks. Still we are very sorry for our people in Burma. Here we can buy fish and meat, and there they have nothing.

We hope and dream that more Rohingya will get to come to Canada, and one day the young generation can go back and visit their homeland.

For now, we can’t sleep at night. It is rainy season right now at home… rain is coming through the roofs, the summer heat is intense, and the people in the camps are crowded. We are very worried.’

Ayasa

Colin Boyd Shafer

‘On the one hand I am happy to be here in Canada, and happy to see my 4 kids alive and getting a good education, but on the other I am so concerned for the people dying… in the street, jungle, seas. I have been depressed since I was young. I’ve seen so many atrocities.

Here I can express my opinion regarding the story of our people freely. My family were victims of forced labour: poor people doing labour for free. My father and my brother would be taken away in the night and made to carry rations, construct buildings or do the night watch. Many people died.

Still today, my family has to give rice to the authorities for free just to keep their property. Even if our people are educated, they are jobless. My cousin graduated from university, but he has no job.’

Mohamed

Colin Boyd Shafer

‘Aside from my ambition to become a successful businessman, I want to live a life where I get involved in helping others… not just our people.

My mother is my connection to what it was like to be a Rohingya in Burma. I was too young when we were there to remember anything now.’

Sajida

Colin Boyd Shafer

‘My favourite thing is family dinner. My favourite foods are fries and ketchup.’

Yonus

Colin Boyd Shafer

‘We feel like our people are caught between two big liars. If we go to Bangladesh we are told we are Rohingya from Burma, and if we go to Burma we are told we are Bengali.

Here in Canada, I’m trying to develop a life with my wife and children. My 14-year-old son Aman Ullah is still in Bangladesh, and that brings me a lot of sadness.

At one point he was abducted for a C$900 ransom (US$728), which I paid. The only thing holding him back from joining me here is the fact that Bangladesh has stopped all resettlements.’

Kalim

Colin Boyd Shafer

Mom: ‘He likes Candy… He was born here, so he’s our Canadian!’

Amir Hossan

Colin Boyd Shafer

‘I was in jail in Bangladesh for 1 year and 9 months, just because I didn’t want to be sent back to Burma. I still have signs on my body from the beatings. They had us squished together like grapes… 17 people in 1 room. Now I just want to live peacefully here in Canada.’

Rabia

Colin Boyd Shafer

‘1992 is when I fled to Bangladesh with my family. After 3 months, they started forced repatriation back to Burma. They arrested my husband and my 5-year-old started crying for Dad. The police hit him with a gun, and later my child died.

I had to sell the few belongings I had to pay for my husband’s release. But when I went to the prison he wasn’t there. The rumour was that he was dead.

At the Nayapera refugee camp they again wanted me to go back to Burma. I pleaded that I was waiting to see if my husband was alive. They gave me 2 weeks, and then I was forced back to Burma with my 40-day-old child.

In Burma I had nobody… everyone I had was in refugee camps. After 6 months I travelled for 3 days back to the border with Bangladesh and crossed.

While at the Gondun refugee camp with my sister-in-law, my situation was reported to the UNHCR and they gave me support, while I waited there patiently for my husband. Finally, after almost 2 years, I discovered that he was alive.

Now we have 7 children. My eldest is 24 and youngest is 6. I hope one day they will be police officers and lawyers.’

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